Comfort & Joy
Page 18

 Kristin Hannah

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“I’ll go get Mr. Lundberg!” Bobby cries out, rushing down the hall.
When I turn to ask Daniel something, he’s gone, but I don’t need his direction. I’ve spent plenty of time in nursing homes. I know how to help.
I walk down the busy hallway, looking in to the various rooms. Most are empty now. That’s why the hallways are so full.
In the very back of the building, I find an elderly woman sitting in a chair, all by herself, facing a window that looks outside. She wears a pale pink ruffled dressing gown, with ribbons in her snow white hair. Her small, heart-shaped face has been overtaken by wrinkles, and bright red lipstick doesn’t quite match her lip lines, but her eyes reveal a woman who was once gorgeous enough to stop traffic.
“Hello, there,” I say, stepping into the small room. “Merry Christmas Eve. Would you like to go to the brunch?”
She doesn’t answer me. I’ve probably spoken too softly. I enter the room, make my way past the bed, and kneel down in front of her.
She’s muttering something, playing with a red satin ribbon. The thin strip of fabric is coiled around her knobby, veiny knuckles.
“Hey,” I say, smiling up at her. “I’m here to take you to the brunch.” I have to yell the words.
The woman frowns. Her fingers still. She blinks down at me. “Is it my time?”
“The brunch starts in ten minutes.”
“My sister is supposed to come for me.”
“I’m sure she’ll meet you in the dining room.” I stand, offer her my hand.
She looks up at me. Her eyes seem huge in her tiny face. “Walk?”
“Let me help you.” I help her to her feet and coil my arm around her. It’s easy. The woman is almost impossibly frail. Together, moving slowly, we shuffle down the hallway. It’s less crowded now. Only a few people are lingering about.
We pass a nurse, or orderly, someone in a white polyester outfit who stares at us, then frowns. “Mrs. Gardiner?”
“It’s time to plant tulips,” the woman beside me says, tightening her hold on my arm.
We go the last bit to the dining room and turn. At our entrance, I notice how everyone looks up sharply. More than a few gasp. A heavyset nurse rushes toward me. “Mrs. Gardiner, what are you doing here? You know an aide would have brought you a wheelchair.”
“She walked really well,” I say, holding her steady.
“My sister?” she croaks, looking up at the nurse.
“Now, Mrs. Gardiner, you know Dora is gone. But your son is here, and your granddaughters.” The nurse points to a table in the back of the room where a good-looking gray-haired man is seated between a pair of twins. All three of them get to their feet when they see us. Even from here I can see the tears in their eyes.
The man rushes forward, takes his mother’s hand. “Hi, Mom.” His voice is shaky.
“Where’s Dora?” she asks.
“Come on, Mom. Your granddaughters are here.” The man tucks her into his side and leads her toward the table.
The nurse beside me shakes her head, makes a tsking sound. “Poor Mrs. Gardiner.”
Another nurse joins us, stands beside me. “She spends all day waiting for her sister.”
“It’s sad. Dora’s been gone almost fifteen years.”
I ease away from them and head toward the buffet line to help, but volunteers already stand shoulder to shoulder behind the food.
There’s no room for me.
I will do dishes, I guess. I look around for Bobby, but don’t see him. From my place in the doorway, I try to get Daniel’s attention and fail. He’s deep in conversation with an elderly man who seems to want a mountain of hash browns.
I go out into the now-quiet halls. “Bobby?”
When there is no answer, I go in search.
I find him in the recreation room, alone, playing with his action figures. I hear his sound effects before I enter the room.
“Hey, kiddo. What’cha doing?”
He barely looks up at me. “I’m too little.”
I sit down on the plaid sofa behind him. “That won’t be true for long.”
He sits back on his heels. The action figures fall to the side, forgotten. “Mommy never said I was too little. She always let me hand out napkins and stuff.”
“Come here, Bobby.” I pat the seat beside me. He jumps up to the sofa and snuggles in close. “Did you tell your dad you wanted to help?”
He shakes his head, looking miserable.
“You have to tell people how you feel . . .”
“I’m sorry,” Stacey said.
The memory shakes me. Suddenly I have a pounding headache.
I should have listened to her . . .
“. . . and give them a chance.”
“It’s hard,” Bobby says.
“You’ll get no argument from me on that one, kiddo.” Later, when I call my sister, it will be the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.
Daniel walks in. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.”
I smile at him over Bobby’s head. “He was disappointed that he was too little to help serve.”
Bobby looks at me for encouragement. At my nod, he turns back to his dad and says quietly, “Mommy always let me help.”
“I’m sorry, Bobby. I guess I’m sorta learnin’ the ropes on this dad thing.”
“That’s what Joy said.”
Daniel seems surprised by that. “She’s a smart woman, your Joy. And now, boyo, it’s time for church.”
“Oh,” Bobby says quietly.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Daniel says. “I’ll hold your hand the whole time. We’ll light a candle for your mum. She’d like that.”
“You won’t let go?” Bobby asks his father.
“I won’t,” Daniel promises.
Bobby looks at me. “You’ll stay with me?”
“Of course.”
Bobby takes a deep breath. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s go.”
Awash in light, the church looks like a small white jewel against the royal blue sky.
We stand on the sidewalk out front, Daniel and I, with Bobby between us. All around us, people are talking to one another and funneling up the stone steps to the church.
“Don’t let go, Daddy.”
“I won’t,” Daniel says.
They’re a pair now, the two of them, holding fast.
Like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, we advance cautiously up the sidewalk toward the steps, which we take one at a time.
An elderly priest is positioned at the door. He smiles at the sight of Bobby.
“Welcome back, young Robert,” he says, his eyes bright. “We missed you.”
Bobby nods in answer and doesn’t slow down. I can see how nervous he is, but he keeps moving. One foot in front of the other.
“You’re a brave boy,” I say, feeling a swell of pride for this child who is learning young to fight his fear.
He leads us into the back row and slides into the pew. I know he wants to be close to the door. Daniel and I bookend him, give him safety on both sides.
As people pour into the church and fill up the pews, Bobby stands as straight as a newly cut board. He doesn’t sit until the processional begins and the doors behind us bang shut.
It is then, when the pews are full and the doors are shut and the priest is blessing the congregation, that I realize how much I have missed my own faith. I haven’t been in church since my mom’s funeral.
For the next hour, we rise and kneel and rise again, and with each word spoken, each prayer reiterated, I feel a bit of myself return.
At the conclusion of The Lord’s Prayer, Bobby looks up at his dad and whispers: “C’n Mommy hear me in here?”
“She can hear you everywhere,” Daniel answers.
Bobby scrunches up his face and says, “I’m sorry I was mad at you, Mommy,” all in a single breath.
I hear Daniel gasp. “Oh, Bobby . . .”
Bobby’s eyes glisten as he looks at his dad. “I told her I hated her.”
Daniel touches his son’s face, wipes his tears away. “She knows how much you love her, boyo. No silly fight can change that.”
The words are exactly what Bobby needs to hear. For the first time, I see his true smile. It lights up his face, shows off all of his crooked, missing, and growing teeth.
When a hymn begins, Bobby turns to the right page in the hymnal, and joins his clean, high voice with his father’s.
For the remainder of the Mass, they stand side by side and hand in hand. I watch them find their voices, and the sight of it fills my heart.
Starting over.
I’m seeing it. For all my dreams of complex new beginnings and convoluted endings, it can all be as easy as this: a boy singing hymns again.
I’m sorry.
I close my eyes at that. When I open them again, the mass is over. People are crowding together, shaking hands, and talking to one another. A ruddy-faced man turns to me, smiling. “How are you today?”
“Fine. Peace be with you.” I can’t stop smiling. I feel almost giddy with happiness. I’d forgotten this feeling.
We follow the crowd to the parking lot behind the church, where a group of carolers, dressed in old-fashioned Victorian garb, is singing. Volunteers are handing out Styrofoam cups full of hot cider and paper bags filled with hot nuts.
We stand at the back of the crowd, listening to the beautiful voices.
“I can’t see, Dad. Pick me up.”
Daniel scoops Bobby into his arms.
I move in close to Daniel. Although people are all around us, listening to the carolers, whispering among themselves, sipping hot cider, I can hear only Daniel’s quiet, even breathing.
The beat of it matches my heart.
And I think: This is it. My moment. If I’ve learned nothing else in the past few days, it’s that happiness must be fought for. I need to tell him how I feel tonight; tomorrow, this adventure of mine will end. At that, my heart starts hammering in my chest. A headache flares behind my eyes. I’ve always been afraid to reach for what I want.
But not this time. I won’t let a panic attack stop me.
I turn to him. “Daniel.”
The carolers change songs. I recognize the music, but can’t quite place the song. Something is wrong. There’s a buzzing in my head. My vision is blurring.
“Can you hear me?” I say, making my voice loud. When he doesn’t look at me, I dare to touch him. “DANIEL!” I am screaming his name suddenly, trying to grab him.
“Joy?” Bobby is looking at me. “What’s wrong?”
I can see how scared he is. And he can see how scared I am.
“Something’s wrong,” I say. I’m moving away from them, but I don’t want to. I fight to get back; there are people everywhere. I think I see Stacey, standing in the crowd. She’s crying and saying something, but I can’t hear her. But that’s not possible. She has no idea where I am.
Something is buzzing. I can hear people talking, yelling.
Don’t leave us, Joy.
It’s Bobby . . . and it’s not.
I reach out, grab Daniel’s sleeve. “Help me.”